Colum McCann
Colum McCann is the author of eight works of fiction, including Let the Great World Spin, which won the 2009 National Book Award. His forthcoming novel, Transatlantic, will be published in June 2013.

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REASON 63: Obama expanded the lungs of our ongoing identity.

There were many reasons, in 2005, to become a dual citizen of Ireland and the U.S. First of all, my wife and three children were American: there is always an allegiance in love. Secondly, I hated the idea of being constantly filtered, funneled, and fingerprinted at the airports. My green card was tattered. Not only that, but I was scared to go out on the streets and protest the Iraq war that was unfolding all around us—I heard that if I was arrested for protesting, it was possible to be deported. So I took the plunge and became a man of two passports.

But these were the Bush years. Ah, remember them? The President you get is the country you get. Blackwater, Operation Freedom, levees, jumpsuits, Abu Ghraib, Enron. That shit-eating smirk that Cheney wore. The lies, the greed, the selfishness on both sides of the fence, Democratic and Republican alike. I felt entirely complicit. I tucked my blue passport away.

I spent the next three years if not outright lying about my allegiances, at least hiding them. The only people who knew about my dual citizenship were my wife and kids. My mother, my father, my brothers and sisters, my friends and literary acquaintances were all kept in the dark. In airports, I flourished my Irish passport like a badge. I would only produce my American documents at the very last moment, taking them furtively from my pocket.

Then on the evening of November 4, 2008, Barack Obama stepped onto the stage of a country maimed by war, cleaved by greed, riven by a collapsing economy, and I walked outside my New York apartment with my five-year-old son in my arms. Up and down the street, people shouted out the windows of their cars. Strangers were hugging one another. It was the briefest of hallelujah moments—Bernie Madoff was on the way, after all, and Afghanistan loomed—but my boy had fallen asleep on my shoulder, and I felt I was, then, like the old phrase, the son of my son. The night confirmed for me everything I wanted from the American experience.

What Obama did—and continues to do—is expand the lungs of our ongoing sense of identity. While so much of the immigration reform is still slow and tepid, Obama honestly believes in it, and he allows immigrants a sense of possibility, decency, and belonging. This is the original American idea. We are built on the mercies of the past. Obama throws a wide net around himself. His is a generous sense of “Americanness.” The son of a Kenyan economist and a middle-class American anthropologist, born in Hawaii, raised in Indonesia, schooled in New York and Boston. Now he sits in the White House, which must—at times—seem like the very edge of the world.

Has he failed? Sure he has. But failure is vivifying and necessary. And he has failed a lot less than anyone else (think John McCain!) would have done in the circumstances. Lest we forget: Barack Obama inherited the worst series of crises since the 1930s. And he has weathered numerous storms over the past three and a half years.

“Any idiot can survive a crisis,” said Chekhov, “it’s the day to day living that wears you out.”

Obama gets my vote. He allowed me to say where it was that I came from originally, and where it is that I continue to belong.

Colum McCann
 New York, New York

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